Plastic electronics, efficient transformation of solar energy, organic batteries and LEDs as well as luminescent molecules that can trace Alzheimer’s. Olle Inganäs’ research spans many fields. Emulating the patterns of nature is the unifying theme he is following.
Professor of Biomolecular and Organic Electronics
Wallenberg Scholar 2010
Grant 5 + 5 years
Energy transformation in the interface between electronics and biological systems
“I am a bit of a megalomaniac and am frequently out in fields that I am unfamiliar with,” says Olle Inganäs, Professor of Biomolecular and Organic Electronics, and laughs.
According to the dictionary, a megalomaniac is a person who suffers from hubris or delusions of grandeur. However that may be, Inganäs is one of Sweden’s most frequently quoted researchers, and when listening to him, the conversation swings from one field to the next at high speed. It is impossible not to deeply admire his ability to think freely and test if the knowledge he has also applies to connections in other areas.
“Above all, I’m interested in the interface between electronics and biological systems. The theme in my research is energy. I’m fascinated by the biological construction. As well as how materials can be shaped and joined in different ways. For instance, electronic polymers are a structure with a biological inspiration,” explains Inganäs.
Solar cells a realistic alternative
Electronic polymers are plastic materials that conduct current. Olle Inganäs has worked with them his entire scientific career and is mainly interested in organic, degradable and environmentally friendly polymers.
“I want to use the cleanest source of energy - the sun. I hate the combustion engine with a passion,” he says emphatically.
Inganäs’ goal is to create materials that can be used for a transformation of energy that is inexpensive and can be scaled up. White LEDs and solar cells are two examples.
“The problem with solar cells has essentially been solved, not by us, but other labs have succeeded in extracting a tenth of the sunlight’s energy. This is not impressive in itself compared to silicon solar cells, but using organic solar cells is beginning to look financially realistic.”
Funding for production is difficult
Although organic solar cells do not achieve the same efficiency as those made of silicon, they have other advantages.
“The material is so thin that it can be placed on a plethora of surfaces and angles, which is not possible with the silicon cells. It is also inexpensive. It takes a few years to recover the energy cost required to put up today’s solar cells, while it takes one day for the organic cells. It’s just a matter of time until it becomes a common solution in homes,” says Inganäs.
Olle Inganäs believes that the solar cell film that his lab is working with, where the polymers are printed on a thin plastic film, will soon achieve 10-percent efficiency or more.
“Now, we’re at 7 percent. We are going to buy a prototype machine to be able to produce solar cell film both quickly and inexpensively.”
For Inganäs, the scientific challenge is over, he believes that the final phase will depend on synthesis chemistry and then somebody needs to go in with capital in order for production to get under way.
“I’ve been hunting financing in Sweden for several years, but it’s hard,” he says a bit resigned at the same time that he admits that it is not a risk-free project.
“Inorganic material may prove to be the winner in the end, but for me, this technology has a potential to supply the world with electricity, which motivates the same efforts made in the Manhattan and fusion energy projects.”
In parallel with the work on the solar cells, by going back to his earliest research, Olle Inganäs has taken on the next problem - the storage of the solar energy.
“After all, the sun doesn’t shine all day long, every day of the year. I had an idea that lignin, which exists in trees and plants and is a biological polymer, could function to create an organic battery.”
He gathered the inspiration from nature and the plants’ photosynthesis where electrons charged by solar energy are transported by quinones, electrochemically active molecules.
“Then I contacted the only living electrochemist who had studied lignin, Grzegorz Milczarek, in two months he had built a prototype.”
Together, they created a thin film from a mixture of pyrrole and lignin remnants from black liquor, which is a waste product in the manufacture of paper pulp. The film is used as a cathode in the battery.
“I have a hard time believing that it can be as good as the lithium battery. But I believe that it can become technically attractive and a good complement for the storage of solar electricity.”
“I’ve never had so much money to do exactly what I want to with. Now, I can do something that is high risk - it may be a failure or a major breakthrough.”
LEDs and Alzheimer’s diagnostics
Another driver is replacing fluorescent lamps and light bulbs with energy-efficient white light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
“By mixing luminescent molecules, emitting green, blue and red light, with protein molecules prior to misfolding of the protein molecules, we obtain materials which can be printed in thin films to make electrically driven white light sources.”
A bit unexpectedly, Inganäs research also led him in to diagnostics and pharmaceutical development for protein folding diseases like Alzheimer’s. Something that was developed into a business idea.
“Ten years ago, we worked with water-soluble electronic polymers as detectors for DNA hybridization. It proved that the biopolymers that we used also functioned as detectors for collections of misfolded proteins, amyloid plaque, which is formed in Alzheimer’s. Today, we build transistors with misfolded protein threads as bearers, and in the same way as DNA chains decorated with electronic polymers. They are tiny, and there are many copies. If knowledge can be manipulated this way, there must be many more possibilities ...”
Text Carina Dahlberg
Photo Magnus Bergström